Some of us are plant serial killers, some of us haven’t killed a plant in over five years – but we’ve all killed one.
Jane Perrone is the host of houseplant podcast On The Ledge and a freelance garden writer. In this guest blog post, she talks about killing off plants, learning from mistakes and moving forward with gardening.
I’ll never forget my dad telling me about how he got into gardening as a young married man with his first real garden. He ordered some seeds from a mail order catalogue, grabbed a handful of the heavy clay soil from our garden and sowed them an inch deep in a pot, then put the whole lot in the darkness of our shed along with the mower and the rabbit food. When nothing happened after a few weeks, he wrote to the seed company to complain. They generously sent him another packet of seeds, and instructions on how to sow them properly.
Many decades later, my dad is a good gardener (a little too keen on his chainsaw for my liking, admittedly) whose knowledge extends from how to take hardwood cuttings to how to grow the most stupendous dahlias. He didn’t study horticulture, watch gardening shows or even read many gardening books. Almost everything he knows, he learned from the things he killed along the way.
I think that’s why, though I may look back fondly at the houseplants I have resigned to the compost heap over the years, I don’t regret my mistakes, because that is how I have learned how to get it right the next time. Yes, I have a popular podcast about houseplants: yes, I have been growing stuff for four decades, but I still proudly declare that my houseplants die from time to time. And that’s absolutely ok!
Sometimes the lesson I learn is that a particular plant just won’t thrive in the conditions I can offer it. For instance, I struggled with orchids until I moved into a house with just the right combination of north-facing window and skylight. I only dared to try again when I got given a Phalaenopsis, and it thrived. Hey presto, I was a moth orchid master!
There has also been the odd occasion when I simply took against a plant, and couldn’t raise the enthusiasm to meet its needs. Clivia miniata, I am so sorry, what was I thinking?
Other failures have been down to a lack of expertise in tackling a particular pest. I used to be nonchalant about red spider mite until an infestation nearly wiped out all my Calatheas, Stromanthes and Ctenanthes. I gave up on a couple that had gone too far to be saved, but before I realised how to wipe out spider mite through a war of attrition involving removing a lot of leaves, incessant wiping with a damp cloth to remove the eggs that cling to the back of the leaves like grains of caster sugar, and daily spraying with SB Plant Invigorator. Without having killed a few plants, I would never have mastered the art of spider mite obliteration. While “book learning” (or just as often “web learning” these days) plays a really important tole in expanding my knowledge, there’s just no substitute for practical experience when it comes to gardening.
I also reserve a special place in the part for the plants I have killed, not through ignorance but through forgetfulness. Like the gorgeous staghorn fern I accidentally left outside in a cold snap in the autumn, only realising my mistake once it was too late. A tragedy: I sobbed when I found it. But sometimes life and its stresses get in the way of looking after plants: this is normal, inevitable and not something to beat yourself up about once you’ve shed some tears over your fern bereavement.
The ubiquitous tidying expert Marie Kondo tells us we should only hang onto possessions that “spark joy”, and this applies to houseplants, too. The English in particular seem keen to hang onto that miserable stick of a Poinsettia that Aunty June brought round last Christmas, despite the clear evidence that its lank, mildewed foliage carried at half mast is casting an air of extreme melancholy to a whole corner of the front room. Continental Europeans seem more instinctively comfortable with the idea that a houseplant that cost 5 or ten Euros and gave you six months of gloriousness before turning up its toes still offers really good value for money.
So, if a plant isn’t sparking joy for you any more, whether it’s already dead, half-dead, just too hard for you to keep alive or you’re simply bored with it, please, I beg of you, listen to my advice. Either resign it to the compost bin to enrich your garden, or (if it’s pest-or disease-free) pass it on to a friend for a fresh start. The rest of your houseplant collection will thank you no end.